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Despite the presence of MGM superstar Clark Gable, Cain and Mabel was an undisputed box office disaster in 1936. Co-star Marion Davies, a long-time audience favorite and lover of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, was quickly approaching, if she wasn't already there, the end of her film acting career. But instead of reading the proverbial writing on the wall, Hearst convinced the head of Warner Bros. Studios, his old friend Jack Warner, to hire Clark Gable away from MGM in order to co-star in a picture custom-made for Marion Davies entitled Cain and Mabel. Marion had previously been at MGM herself for many years, with her own production company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, set up on the Culver City lot. But a move from MGM to Warner Bros. was triggered by Hearst's grudge against MGM after Marion Davies was considered but ultimately rejected for the lead in their production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934). The lead role in MGM's opulent picture would have been quite a coup for Davies and might have rejuvenated the actress's sagging career. As it turned out though, producer Irving Thalberg's wife, Norma Shearer, was cast in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, much to William Randolph Hearst's dismay. To add insult to injury, Davies also lost the title role in Marie Antoinette in 1938 to Shearer.
Over at Warner Bros., Hearst did exert his considerable influence during the casting phase of Cain and Mabel, the story of a musical star's romance with a heavyweight boxer. Jealous of Warner Bros. contract star Dick Powell whom Marion Davies found attractive, Hearst vetoed the popular young crooner from being cast as the film's second male lead. The part went to Allen Jenkins instead. Hearst's insistence on casting Clark Gable as a prizefighter turned out to be a very ironic move. When Davies was preparing to cast Five and Ten (1931), Irving Thalberg suggested a young Clark Gable for the society man part. Davies insisted on Leslie Howard. To placate Thalberg, Davies agreed to view Gable's screen test. After the test ended, Davies flatly rejected Gable on the grounds that the virile young actor "looks like Jack Dempsey," and that it was impossible to put him in a role like that of a sophisticated man-about-town. Thalberg told Davies that she would be sorry since Gable would some day be a sensation. Only when the lights came up in the screening room did Davies and Thalberg notice a silent Gable sitting quietly behind them. Thalberg insisted he wasn't aware of Gable's presence but he did reiterate that Gable wanted the part and that he would be good in it. Davies stuck to her guns and reassured Thalberg that her refusal was not personal. She just didn't think Gable fit the part, an opinion that stuck with Gable. Days later, he ran into Davies on the MGM lot and reintroduced himself with, "I'm the pug, remember me? I'm Jack Dempsey."
After all that, Davies changed gears the next year for another MGM production called Polly of the Circus (1932). She now insisted that Gable be cast as a minister, a part that Irving Thalberg thought was all wrong for Gable. Davies' won out in the end, even though Gable still harbored resentment towards her for the former slight of a year earlier. On the set of their second film together, Gable asked Davies, "Do I still look like a prizefighter?" Davies tried to convince him that her earlier rejection of him was just business and that it turned out to be the wrong decision. Ironically, once it came time to finally cast Gable as a Jack Dempsey-type prizefighter in Cain and Mabel, the critics almost universally agreed it was as a classic case of miscasting. Newsweek reported that, "Clark Gable and Marion Davies fit in this picture like a fat hand squeezed into a small glove. Too much talent for such a skimpy, thinly woven plot that unravels in a trite series of moments rather than a well constructed tale."
While Cain and Mabel is admittedly no masterpiece, the film still has a great deal of charm, the musical numbers are lavish, and Davies' flair for comedy is in full flower here. If you look closely in one scene, you can also see a hilarious technical gaffe. While hundreds of extras are moving around Davies in the sequence with the huge white pipe organ, you can spot a studio workman walking across the stage at the height of the number. The error was noticed later in the editing room when it was too late to do retakes of the scene.
Producer:Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner
Screenplay:Laird Doyle, H.C. Witwer
Music:Al Dubin, Harry Warren, Bernhard Kaun (uncredited), Heinz Roemheld (uncredited)
Art Direction:Robert M. Haas
Cast:Marion Davies (Mabel O'Dare), Clark Gable (Larry Cain), Allen Jenkins (Dodo), Roscoe Karns (Aloysius K. Reilly), Walter Catlett (Jacob "Jake" Sherman), Robert Paige (Ronny Cauldwell).
BW-90m. Closed captioning.
by Scott McGee